COLLINS: The 2019-2020 Penn State men's basketball team will never get credit it deserves

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Head coach Pat Chambers led the Penn State men's basketball team to a 21-10 record this past season.

This very well could have been a column about the biggest tournament in basketball, a chronicling of the first weekend of the Madness, a recount of what is always a wild first round, a close look at the Cinderellas and the Goliaths and everyone still left that make the first weekend of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament one of the most-anticipated sporting events of the year.

Instead of writing about the tournament where anything is possible, we’re instead, again, going to discuss dreams deferred.

We’re going to discuss, in an admittedly upside-down world where there is much worse and far scarier going on than the lack of basketball games, how impossible it is not to feel utterly heartbroken for Patrick Chambers.

“For me and my staff, our little world that we live in is basketball. And right now, it’s Penn State basketball,” Penn State’s head coach said during a press conference on Friday. “And, it has been devastating. Many tears have been shed.

“I’m getting emotional right now thinking ...”

He can’t finish the sentence, and it’s difficult to blame him. We took sports very seriously just a few weeks ago before COVID-19 arrived with force, didn’t we? Perhaps too seriously, Chambers knows, and maybe shutting everything down and focusing on what really matters, for however long we have to do it, changes that.

But the reality is, we live in a world where to a guy like Chambers and a group of kids that wanted to bring Nittany Lions basketball to national prominence might’ve actually done it. They won’t ever get the national credit they deserved for doing so.

Penn State's Lamar Stevens, seen here at right in a file photo, finished just seven points shy of the Nittany Lions' all-time scoring record.

No chance to truly celebrate: Penn State had a leading scorer, senior Lamar Stevens, who was seven points shy of the program’s all-time scoring record. It had a team that finished 21-10 and, at one point, was ranked No. 9 in the nation. But it received no opportunity to truly celebrate that.

The NCAA has done quite a bit right these last few weeks, to be fair. It made tough, financially crushing decisions when it had to make them. It canceled its biggest tournaments for the betterment of public health. It made swift calls to cancel spring sports seasons that weren’t popular, but they did set the tone for the sports world. Then, after doing so, it at least gave athletes in the sports affected the opportunity to redeem those seasons in the future.

For sure, the NCAA did everything it could possibly do in the face of unprecedented issues, except give teams like Penn State the satisfaction of a job well done. Strange thing is, it very easily could have done so.

Obviously, after it was announced March 12 that the Big Dance was nixed, it was clear there would be no games. But this is one of those rare instances in sports where the schedule is practically as important as the games.

Still should have been a Selection Sunday: Once the tournaments were gone, the NCAA determined there was no sense in even putting together the brackets. The men’s selection committee had only begun its deliberations that weekend when the games were canceled, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said, and he didn’t believe competitive brackets could be put together in a “responsible or fair” manner when seasons weren’t completed.

“Brackets based on hypotheticals can’t substitute for a complete selection, seeding and bracketing process,” Gavitt said in a statement. “There will always be an asterisk next to the 2020 NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championships regardless if brackets are released.”

So, put a stupid asterisk next to it, Dan. Maybe it’s small potatoes at places like Duke and Kentucky. But there are plenty of programs to whom Selection Sunday is as big as the tournament.

Would've been a huge deal for some teams, including PSU: Think that wouldn’t have been a massive celebration for a program like the one at the University of Dayton?

The Flyers went 29-2, and clearly, they were going to be in the field. But they were likely going to be in the field as a No. 1 seed. Arguably, hearing that announced would have been the defining moment in that program’s history.

San Diego State might’ve had its best seeding ever, too. Seton Hall was looking at its best ranking in 27 years, as well. For sure, there were a handful of other programs that were going to get in for which making the field at all is a once-in-a-generation celebration.

Penn State is pretty much one of those. Chambers has had fans calling for his job, has seen teams expected to compete for the tournament fall apart, has had a team that just missed the Big Dance go on to win the National Invitation Tournament in 2018. His program has been defined by near misses, and it pains him that this team, his best, ends up added to the list through no fault of its own.

A likely No. 6 or No. 7 seed: Most bracketology experts had Penn State as a No. 6 or No. 7 seed in the NCAAs heading into the Big Ten tournament. That would have been fine for a program that made the dance just twice in the last 23 seasons and had a better seed than that just once ever, a team that had the 2019-20 season circled on its calendar a few years now as a national coming-out party. Seniors like Stevens won 76 games during their time in Happy Valley, and they won’t get to play in an NCAA tournament game.

“I do think this team should be celebrated. You can’t diminish what they’ve done,” Chambers said. “There were a lot of incredible accomplishments.

“We invested so much time and energy and sacrifice. To be able to get our kids to hear that and see that and get them to the Selection Show, and to have them take that away from you too, that’s what was so disappointing with the NCAA’s decision. … I think I feel cheated when it comes to something like that, not for me, but for the nine-year guys who’ve been on the staff and for the players. What a storybook ending that would have been.”

You know what they say about storybook endings, though. You don’t always get one. Even when you need them most.